Redskin

Dana Holgorsen has Houston football poised for sustained success after a rough start


Nearly three years ago, inside the dining hall of Houston’s athletics center, Dana Holgorsen approached a few reporters to discuss his unorthodox redshirt strategy.

Just moments before, Holgorsen, starting quarterback D’Eriq King and receiver Keith Corbin had completed an unprecedented news conference, announcing that — after a 1-3 start to the 2019 season — the two players were redshirting the rest of the year with the intention of returning to the Cougars in 2020.

The idea, which Holgorsen broached to the players after a rough start to his debut UH campaign, was a unique utilization of the NCAA’s adjustment to the redshirt rule, which allows players to play up to four games without burning a year of eligibility. It sparked accusations from observers of “tanking,” which Holgorsen vehemently denied. At a minimum, sitting two of the team’s best players four games into the season elicited a heavy dose of skepticism, which Holgorsen sensed, prompting him to further explain his reasoning to the reporters after the news conference wrapped up.

One of them told Holgorsen that day that he was the only coach in the country who could try such a strategy, given the job security he had. He was warmly welcomed in Houston after another unorthodox move, leaving a successful Power 5 program (West Virginia) to join a Group of 5 school.

It was true, which Holgorsen admits three years later. In a must-win era that regularly sees underachieving coaches dismissed after three seasons — heck, the coach Holgorsen replaced, Major Applewhite, was fired after posting two winning records — few have the backing to flush a season in the spirit of rebuilding.

“I knew I was going to be here. I had confidence (in the plan),” Holgorsen told The Athletic recently. “I was more interested in changing the culture than winning games. And that’s almost impossible in this profession. You don’t get the time.

“If I failed, I failed. I was just like ‘All right, I’ll just f—ing go do something else.’”

His mood now is light years better than it was then, because the Cougars are coming off a 12-2 season, an appearance in the American Athletic championship game and a bowl win over Auburn and are primed for another run at the league title with a loaded roster before likely jumping to the Big 12 in 2023.

Through it all, Holgorsen feels validated by his initial vision.

The journey to this point has been far from smooth. Houston endured a 4-8 showing in 2019 and a 3-5 year in 2020 that included eight games impacted by COVID-19 scheduling issues. Also, King and Corbin ultimately transferred (King after the 2019 season, Corbin after 2020). But with the use of Holgorsen’s redshirt strategy, which numerous other players adopted that season, and a 2020 NCAA-induced eligibility freeze, he achieved his goal of aging the roster.

Houston’s quarterback, Clayton Tune, is a fifth-year senior coming off a career year. He’s surrounded by talented, experienced playmakers. The Cougars are deep on defense despite losing three players to the NFL Draft. The coaching staff has largely remained stable. Recruiting has improved. New facilities are pending and investment in the program continues to grow.

And Holgorsen, who just signed a contract extension this offseason, isn’t going anywhere. Big picture, the Cougars are in the best shape they’ve been in since the Southwest Conference imploded in the mid-1990s. The team itself should be a New Year’s Six bowl contender in 2022.

After a rough start to his Houston homecoming, Holgorsen feels much better about where the Cougars sit now.

“I believed in our approach,” he said. “I believed in the administration. And I felt like I had to do some drastic shit to change the culture.

“Yeah, I took heat, but I don’t care. We had a plan and we executed the plan.”

Offense

After two seasons hovering around 30 points per game, the Cougars made a big jump offensively in 2021, averaging 35.9. That put them in the top 15 nationally and third in the AAC. There’s reason to believe they can flirt with those marks again this year.

The Cougars enter 2022 with their quarterback firmly entrenched. Tune returns for his fourth season as the starter. The veteran has come a long way since succeeding King in 2019. There was a time in previous seasons, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said, that Tune “tried to be Superman” and made mistakes that cost UH wins.

In 2021, with the exception of a four-interception performance in a season-opening loss to Texas Tech, Tune turned the page.

“He played his ass off,” Dawson said. “He managed games, took chances when chances were there. Other than the first game, he didn’t ever put us in a bad situation.”

Tune’s mastery of the offense, from knowledge to communication to control, is unmatched. He posted career highs in every passing category, including touchdown passes (30) and completion percentage (68.3) last season.

“He’s worked himself into the position that there aren’t really any glaring problems,” Dawson said. “He’s become a really solid football player.”

Said Holgorsen: “The way he performed the last eight games, he’s got a chance to be one of the top five guys (nationally) out there next year.”

Tune’s backup, sixth-year senior walk-on Ike Ogbogu, also returns. Holman Edwards, a junior college signee from the 2021 class, got a healthy number of practice reps during spring. But Tune’s potential successor could be a player the Cougars landed from the transfer portal, former Arkansas quarterback Lucas Coley.

Coley, a three-star 2021 recruit from San Antonio, was heavily recruited by Houston out of high school. He chose to head to the SEC, but the Cougars pounced when he became available again.

Spring practice brought misfortune at a key position, where running back Alton McCaskill suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during an early April practice. McCaskill shined in 2021 with a team-high 961 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, most among FBS true freshman running backs. It’s a big loss.

Whether McCaskill can return in time to play in late-season games or has to sit out the entire 2022 season to recover remains to be seen.


Nathaniel Dell tied for 13th nationally with 90 receptions in 2021. (Marvin Gentry / USA Today)

McCaskill’s absence likely means an increased workload for senior Ta’Zhawn Henry. The former Texas Tech transfer was the team’s second-leading rusher last season (513 yards, seven touchdowns) and also caught 21 passes. Though diminutive in stature (Henry stands 5-foot-7 and weighs just 170 pounds), he’s “a really solid player who can do anything,” Dawson said.

Even before McCaskill’s injury, the Cougars sought additional running back depth in the portal and that search proved timely. Former USC running back Brandon Campbell, a four-star 2021 recruit, was on an official visit to Houston and committed just before McCaskill got hurt. Campbell, a Houston-area product, has a frame (5-11, 210) comparable to McCaskill’s, which should allow the Cougars to use Campbell and Henry this season similarly to how they used McCaskill and Henry in 2021.

“Adding BC is crucial,” Dawson said.

Behind Campbell and Henry, third-year back Stacy Sneed is the likely next option. The 2020 recruit hasn’t played in his first two years on campus but had an impressive enough spring that Holgorsen is confident he doesn’t need to hit the portal to find another back.

“He’s probably the most talented guy in the room,” said Dawson, who called Sneed the most improved player at the position.

At receiver, Houston possesses sufficient talent. Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, who led the AAC in catches (90), receiving yards (1,329) and touchdown catches (12) last season, returns. So does Ke’Sean Carter, a Texas Tech transfer who came on strong midseason but missed the last five games with an injury.

With some key losses at the position, Holgorsen beefed up the room via recruiting and the portal. The player who turned the most heads this spring was true freshman Matthew Golden, a four-star signee. Golden, who is the fourth-highest-rated prospect Houston has signed in the modern recruiting era, quickly acclimated himself to the offense and should challenge for a starting job this season.

The Cougars also added two transfer receivers: West Virginia’s Sam Brown and USC’s Joseph Manjack IV. Both players proved more than capable in the spring and, coupled with Golden, may make the passing attack more diverse (Dell had 53 more receptions than the next best pass catcher in 2021).

“Those guys are going to add an element to our offense that we’re not going to be so one-dimensional with targeting (Dell),” Dawson said. “We’re gonna have other places to go with the ball when they do focus their defensive strategy on Tank and so it’ll ultimately make us a more explosive offense.”

Their additions also allow Dell to return to his natural position as an inside receiver. The staff didn’t feel it had enough options at outside receiver, forcing the Cougars to play some guys out of position. Golden and Brown will both be outside receivers, and Manjack can play either. Redshirt freshmen C.J. Guidry and Khiyon Wafer also provide some depth outside.

Tight end has a familiar, reliable face returning in Christian Trahan, the team’s second-leading receiver last year. He has 81 catches for 936 yards in the last three seasons combined and will remain a key part of the offense.

Up front, the Cougars had the good fortune of starting the same five offensive linemen in all 14 games last season. Only two of them return for 2022 — left tackle Patrick Paul and right guard Tank Jenkins — but there’s talent and experience on hand beyond that pair.

The left side of the line is in solid shape with Paul and third-year sophomore Cam’Ron Johnson returning. Paul was a first-team All-AAC pick, and Johnson, though not the starter last year, played more snaps at left guard (546) than the player he backed up, Keenan Murphy (305), who has since graduated and joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant.

Jenkins was a solid starter at right guard. The two biggest question marks up front coming into spring were at center and right tackle, and both have been addressed.

Entering spring, Holgorsen considered adding a center from the portal to succeed Kody Russey, a former Louisiana Tech transfer who stabilized the middle for UH but exhausted his eligibility. Jack Freeman, who backed up Russey last year, had such a strong spring that Holgorsen feels confident moving forward with him as the starter.

Beefing that spot up even further is true freshman center Demetrius Hunter. A national top-500 recruit who originally committed to Oklahoma, Hunter flipped to the Cougars after Lincoln Riley left for USC and impressed enough this spring to earn potential playing time behind Freeman this season.

At right tackle, the Cougars dipped into the portal to land Tyler Johnson, a former four-star recruit from the 2019 class. Johnson spent three seasons at Texas, starting the 2020 Alamo Bowl for the Longhorns but mostly serving as a backup.

Houston also added tackle Lance Robinson, a transfer from Middle Tennessee, via the portal. Robinson started 12 games at right tackle last season but can play multiple positions and has three years of eligibility left.

Key stat to know: The lack of proven, consistent outside receivers kept the Cougars from regularly attacking deep down the sideline in 2021. According to Pro Football Focus, Houston completed only 2-of-7 pass attempts of at least 20 yards downfield toward the sideline.

While the two such completions are in the middle of the pack nationally (67th in the FBS), the seven deep outside attempts were second-to-last in the AAC (ahead of only run-heavy Navy) and 99th overall in the FBS. Improving their downfield passing, which the Cougars are confident they will, is critical to making the offense more explosive.

“We weren’t just kicking people’s ass on the outside (last season),” Dawson said. “But we completed more vertical routes this spring than in any of my three years here.”

Cougars returning production

Category Percent returning Top returner

Passing yards

100

Tune, 3,544

Rushing yards

85

McCaskill, 961

Receiving yards

61

Dell, 1,329

OL starts

40

Jenkins, Paul, 12

Tackles

62

Mutin, 7

Tackles for loss

63

Parish, 12

Sacks

70

D. Jones, 6

Interceptions

43

Hogan, Owens, 2

Defense

While Holgorsen’s specialty is offense, Houston proved to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams last year. Under first-year coordinator Doug Belk, the Cougars lived in opposing backfields, racking up 43 sacks (sixth in the FBS), 98 tackles for loss (12th) and finishing 11th in stop rate, preventing scores on 74.1 percent of opposing offensive possessions.

Houston gradually built up its defensive talent in recent years. Three starters from the 2021 squad were 2022 NFL Draft picks, but don’t expect much dropoff. The Cougars are still deep and talented, and that starts up front.

Six of the eight players on Houston’s 2021 defensive line two-deep are back. D’Anthony Jones, who led the team with six sacks, had 8.5 tackles for loss and finished second in the AAC in forced fumbles (four) despite playing only 40 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, returns as the hybrid rush defensive end/outside linebacker.

“I have high expectations for him,” Belk said. “He can change the game at any moment.”

Jones’ workload should increase this year, but Nadame Tucker, a junior college transfer with a similar build and “a lot of juice,” will pair with Jones at rush end.

At the other end, both Derek Parish (five sacks, 12 tackles for loss) and Nelson Ceasar, return. Parish is a consistent producer and was second-team All-AAC. Belk believes Ceasar, entering his fourth year in the program, could be the most gifted rusher on the roster.

Inside, Chidozie Nwankwo returns to man the nose after finishing the 2021 season strong. “If you watch the tape against Auburn and down the stretch against Cincinnati, they struggled to block him,” Belk said. “He’s going to be a force in this league.” Jamykal Neal, who rotated with Nwankwo at nose last year, also returns.

Replacing Logan Hall, the 33rd overall pick in the draft, at the three-technique defensive tackle is the key up front. Belk likes his options between seniors Atlias Bell (“a freaky athlete,”), Sedrick Williams (“relentless motor”) and Latrell Bankston, who started five games at nose last year.

“We’ll be a little different at that position,” he said, “but I think the production will be the same from the position based on the body types and athleticism we have.”


Derek Parish tied for fifth in the AAC with 12 TFLs in 2021. (Justin Ford / USA Today)

There are also two more junior college transfers who provide intriguing depth options: Zykeius Strong, a 6-6, 265-pound edge rusher who can bend, and Amipeleasi Langi, an athletic, 6-6, 310 interior lineman.

At linebacker, Belk feels the Cougars are deeper than they have been in years. Starting middle linebacker Donavan Mutin, a second-team all-conference pick, returns as the unquestioned leader on defense. “He’s our Peyton Manning,” Belk said. “He’s one of the most intelligent players I’ve coached.” Trimarcus Cheeks, a transfer from Samford who shined this spring, gives Houston a solid middle linebacker duo.

At weakside linebacker, Belk is high on senior Malik Robinson and sophomore Mannie Nunnery. Both served as rotation players last year and will assume bigger roles this year.

One wild card in the group is Oklahoma transfer Jamal Morris. The four-star 2019 recruit is a former safety who can run and hit and is versatile enough to play in the middle or on the weak side. True freshman Treylin Payne, an early enrollee, impressed with his motor and how naturally he shed blocks in spring practice.

In the secondary, Houston returns a wealth of experience. Both starting safeties, first-team All-AAC pick Gervarrius Owens and Hasaan Hypolite, a team captain, are back. So is Jayce Rogers, who served as the primary nickelback in 2021.

The two starting corners from last year’s team, All-American Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams, were both drafted, but their successors, Art Green and Alex Hogan, saw plenty of playing time last year and are ready to take the reins.

Hogan, a former Texas Tech transfer, started only one game but played 551 snaps, only 47 fewer than Jones. Green started three games and played 382 snaps. Belk expects Green to have a breakout season because of how difficult he is to throw the ball over. Hogan can play multiple positions and has good ball skills.

Belk likes to rotate corners frequently, so expect a lot of faces to see the field here. Redshirt freshman Jalen Emery, a fast, quick-twitch corner, should find himself in the rotation. The Cougars also mined the junior college ranks for some additions. Moses Alexander, the No. 3 junior college corner in the country, is expected to come in and compete immediately. So is Blinn College prospect Justice Ugo, who committed in May. College of the Canyons recruit Abdul-Lateef Audu and three-star true freshman Dorian Friend, a 24-foot long jumper and 10.4-second 100-meter sprinter are also potential options.

At safety, Thabo Mwaniki, a former Oklahoma State transfer, and Garrison Vaughn provide experience and depth. Redshirt freshman Mark Wilson, who can play corner and safety, will likely see time at the latter. Antonio Brooks, a 2021 junior college transfer who played sparingly last year, “had the best spring out of all of them,” Belk said. “He has balance, body control and tackles well in space.”

Key stat to know: The Cougars were the best third-down defense in the country last year, allowing only 48 first downs on 187 attempts. The 25.6 percent third-down conversion rate against Houston was the lowest in the FBS since 2018 when Miami (Fla.) held opponents to 25.2 percent.

Special teams

The Cougars had the best return threat in the country last year in Paul Hornung Award winner Marcus Jones. His four combined kickoff and punt return touchdowns led the country, and his 100-yard return as time expired against SMU won the Cougars a game.

Replacing Jones will be difficult, but the options are plentiful.

Dell, the leading returning receiver, is a potential replacement after serving as the secondary kickoff returner last year. Henry has experience in the role dating back to his Texas Tech days in 2019 and was a part-time kickoff returner last year.

An intriguing possibility is Rogers, the nickelback. He was an explosive returner both in high school and at Northwest Mississippi Community College, averaging 27.3 yards per return as a freshman and returning a kickoff for a touchdown.

At placekicker, the Cougars must fill the void left by Dalton Witherspoon, who graduated. Kyle Ramsey, a fourth-year player who has kicked off in the past and was successful on three PAT attempts last year, is a prime candidate. Bubba Baxa, who served as the kickoff specialist last year and will again this year, is an option as well.

Laine Wilkins, who averaged 41.8 yards per punt last season, returns for his sophomore season.

Opposing scouting report

After a breakout 2021 campaign, opponents see the Cougars as a team with only a few question marks and plenty of talent to contend for the conference title again.

“Clayton Tune has taken the next step as a player in this league,” an opposing assistant told The Athletic. “His confidence level was different last year. He could just take over games. It never felt like that before, but look at the statistics, look at the film … and you could say he’s the best quarterback in the AAC.”

The talent around Tune is impressive, the assistant said. Paul, the left tackle has the type of elite size and strength that could make him “the next high draft pick” for the Cougars. Dell may be “the best route runner in the Group of 5,” he said. And Trahan is as reliable as they come at tight end.

The big concern offensively, the assistant said, is whether receivers other than Dell can emerge.

“I’ll be interested to see who steps up at receiver besides Dell,” he said. “Because if you take Dell out of the game, I don’t know who they go to.”

The defensive line should be in good shape with Jones, Parish and Nwankwo returning, the coach said, but, “How do they replace Logan Hall in the middle of the defense? That will be interesting to watch.”

He called Mutin a true team leader who will be a future NFL linebacker and was intrigued by the athleticism and physical traits of Nunnery.

The area to watch on defense, the assistant said, is how well the Cougars replace their departed cornerback draftees.

“You’re losing two really good, man-to-man, sudden, twitchy, fast, highly competitive corners,” he said. “That, to me, is the biggest question mark.”

How the Cougars recruited from 2019 to 2022

Houston is coming off its best recruiting class since Holgorsen arrived, finishing 50th in the 2022 247Sports Composite team rankings and second in the AAC. That finish was fueled in large part by a late flurry of commits just before December signing day that included Golden (a four-star), Hunter (a high three-star) and Alexander, the No. 8 junior college prospect in the country.

The Cougars’ 2022 recruiting rank was more than 20 spots better than its previous three classes, a result of the team’s 2021 on-field success and the school’s impending Big 12 membership.

Every class since Holgorsen arrived has included a heavy dose of transfer portal takes, impacting the size and ranking of the signing classes. In the three classes spanning 2019 through 2021, Houston signed 50 high school and junior college prospects while taking 26 transfers. In the 2022 cycle, the Cougars have 20 signees and eight transfers thus far with still more potentially to come.

In the transfer portal

Since his arrival at the start of 2019, Holgorsen has made heavy use of the portal to upgrade the roster. It has included some real gems, like Marcus Jones and Russey.

The 2022 cycle saw the Cougars address several important needs in the portal: offensive line (tackles Johnson and Robinson), receiver, (Brown and Manjack) and running back (Campbell). They also may have found their future Big 12 quarterback in Coley.

Holgorsen has emphasized pursuing “bounce back” players, high school recruits from the Houston area or Texas who left the area to play Power 5 football elsewhere but decided to return closer to home to finish their careers. Campbell, Manjack and Coley and Morris all fit that description.

Ultimately, whether the players come from high school, junior college or the portal, Holgorsen’s strategy is cut and dried.

“Simply, we need Power 5 players,” Holgorsen said. “Get the best players, period.”

Impact of coaching changes

Holgorsen made only one change to his full-time coaching staff this offseason, adding former USC running backs coach Mike Jinks.

Jinks succeeds Marquel Blackwell, who left for Ole Miss, as running backs coach. Jinks has deep Texas ties dating back to his time as a high school coach at Cibolo Steele and also as an assistant at Texas Tech.

“He’s been on my list a long time,” Holgorsen said. “With his pedigree in the state of Texas and his experience in this offense, he was a really good hire.”


Dana Holgorsen has a 19-15 record in three seasons at Houston. (Katie Stratman / USA Today)

He already has some familiarity with Campbell, an incoming Houston running back who transferred from USC.

Houston’s administration bumped up the football staff salary pool seven figures up to $5.5 million, allowing Holgorsen to hire seven new people to his support staff. Three of those are full-timers in recruiting, two are analysts and two will work in the creative department. Before entering the Big 12, they’ll kick the salary pool up another million.

The Cougars’ support staff is now at a level similar to their future Big 12 counterparts. And the additional salary pool investment allowed Holgorsen to retain Belk, who received overtures from multiple Power 5 programs and even NFL teams this offseason.

Schedule

Date Team Site

Sept. 3

Away

Sept. 10

Away

Sept. 17

Home

Sept. 24

Home

Sept. 30

Home

Oct. 7

Away

Oct. 22

Away

Oct. 29

Home

Nov. 5

Away

Nov. 12

Home

Nov. 19

Away

Nov. 25

Home

Final assessment

Losing McCaskill to injury is tough, but there’s enough talent on this team to contend for the AAC title and a New Year’s Six bowl. The schedule isn’t easy, with two tough road games to start, plus trips to Memphis and SMU in conference play.

But the depth and overall talent on hand, through years of savvy roster construction via redshirting, recruiting and the transfer portal, coupled with a talented staff means this should be a 10-win team at minimum. Houston’s last year in the Group of 5 should be a good one.

(Top photo of Clayton Tune: Ken Murray / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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